Fall of Empires:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In August 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Army flung itself at its enemies with suicidal abandon. In the initial battles in Galicia (the slice of southern Poland belonging to Austria-Hungary). The ferocity of the attacks, and utter disregard for casualties, shocked even the army’s own generals. The Austrians won their first battles, but at a cost that the Dual Monarchy could not sustain for even weeks, let alone years.
Those battles are the theme of Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires. There are forty scenarios, most of them drawn from the battles of Kraśnik and Komarów (the remainder come from the initial clashes of cavalry along the Russo-Austrian border). They presented a different design challenge than the usual scenario for Infantry Attacks or its World War II sister, Panzer Grenadier. At least the infantry-based scenarios did.
These don’t play like other scenarios in either series. It’s vitally important for players to read all of the scenario rules and in particular, to pay close attention to the victory conditions. That’s not a misprint: the Austrian player usually suffers no penalty for incurring casualties. Initiative can drop because of losses, but rarely does the Austrian player need to avoid losses in order to win. That’s a game mechanic rarely seen in either series, outside some of the more ill-advised Japanese banzai charges in games like Saipan 1944.
Next, note the interplay of scenario length and victory conditions. The Austrians almost always have to take geographic objectives (sometimes they also have to beat up the Russians), and they don’t have a whole lot of time in which to do it. Then take a closer look at the Austrian artillery: the field guns are simply crapulent, out-ranged by the Russian field guns and without much punch when they actually can reach their targets. Making it still worse, the Austrians never have off-board artillery. What you see is all that you get.
What does that mean? It means that if the Austrian player wants to win, he or she is going to have to make infantry attacks. Brutal, straight-ahead infantry attacks, rarely without enough time to make wide sweeping maneuvers. This game is won or lost in the trenches, except that the Austrians usually aren’t allowed to dig in, either.
It’s not all a negative for the Austrian player. The troops themselves are very good; their morale is high (usually better than that of the Russians, and almost never less) and they can match the Russians for infantry firepower. Austrian leadership is outstanding; the leaders themselves are crazy brave and, at least for the first day or so, the Austrian divisions have a surfeit of them (like Panzer Grenadier, Infantry Attacks shows a formation’s caliber in part through the number of leaders available in a scenario). And then the next time they fight they don’t have quite so many, and then the next time fewer still. Unlike other games in Infantry Attacks or Panzer Grenadier, you can see the Austrian divisions deteriorate in the course of a week-long chapter.
The Austrians also have a special power unique to themselves in Infantry Attacks, the storm column. The Austrian player can stack additional companies in the same hex, if they have enough leadership. Which means the Russians are going to shoot at the storm column with everything on the board, and the storm column’s going to take extra losses because of all the tight-packed target density. But remember, casualties don’t move the meter on Austrian victory conditions. If the storm column makes it to the Russian lines, it’s going to crush whoever sticks around to greet it.
On the Russian side, the objectives are more familiar to players of either game series: hold or take objectives, and make more of the other guys’ men die for their country than your own do for yours. You’re facing an opponent who’s seemingly insane, but his troops are flesh and blood just like yours, and they can be killed or broken.
And the Russians have a special power of their own to help them do that: their artillery is extra effective when it’s had time to position itself (in game terms, it begins the scenario already Dug In). That doesn’t happen in August 1914, where the Russians were on the operational offensive. Here they’re on the defensive, and ready to make full use of the fine qualities of their 76.2mm field guns (and when used defensively, also glide over the weapon’s serious flaws).
I spent far too many years designing Fall of Empires, and that gave me a lot of time to think about the story I wanted it to tell. A multi-cultural empire with a thousand years of history died along with over 100,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers - one-quarter of the army’s peacetime strength - in these opening battles. I wanted to show why that happened rather than just play out the events from a storyboard. I needed a lot of thought, study and perspective before I was ready to do that.
I’ve designed role-playing games as well as board games (and even won an Origins Award for it!), and I learned a lot from that experience. You want the players to act out their roles for the same reasons their characters do so. If you’ve built your model well enough, you’ll get the same effects. What’s going to seem odd in Fall of Empires is in there intentionally; the Austrian player, much like the division or brigade commander he or she represents, knows his or her actions to be doomed in the long term. But the scenario doesn’t care about the long term, only today. And today the hill or the town must be taken whatever the cost.
At this point the designer’s supposed to sign off by telling you how much he or she enjoyed designing the game, and how they hope the players do so as well. I didn’t enjoy designing this game; it’s a story of a horrific tragedy, one felt far beyond the senseless bloodshed of the battlefields. There’s a direct historical through-line from the fall of the Dual Monarchy to the rise of Hitler and on to that of Milosevic. I designed the game to tell the story of what happened on the forgotten battlefields of Galicia, an important story that I thought needed to be told, not just what happened but why, and I hope that it does that.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an uncountable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects; a few of them were actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold enjoys gnawing his deer antler and editing Wikipedia pages.